By the time he died in January 1547, King Henry VIII had become an obese, temperamental monster. His reputation was that of a brute whose hands were soaked with the blood of the executions he ordered, among them, two of his six wives.
His lavish lifestyle, the epic corruption of the selling off of church lands, and his aggressive foreign policy had brought his kingdom to the point of bankruptcy. He replaced gold coins with copper ones in the Great Debasement in his final years, a bare faced fraud.
By the day of Henry’s death, some of those watching his mute, terrified grab at Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s hand must have been relieved their corpulent king was breathing his last.
It is also possible to point to his charismatic leadership, his formidable physical and mental strength, and his stubborn defence of the national interest. Arguably, Henry was one of England’s greatest statesmen.
1. The centre of European politics
In 1513 he launched a campaign against France. His army took Thérouanne and, more importantly, Tournai, one of the largest medieval cities in Northern Europe. If Henry had managed to hold onto it, he would have had a real foothold in France beyond Calais.
He didn’t, so he tried peace. Henry and his chief minister Cardinal Wolsey organised a congress in September 1518 an ambitious attempt at a European wide peace settlement, they signed the ‘Universal and Perpetual Peace’ with France.
To celebrate, a lavish festival, the Field of Cloth of Gold, was held two years later, which glorified diplomacy as a new kind of power. This placed England firmly at the centre of European politics, instead of being regarded as a remote rain-swept island at the edge of the known world.
2. Parliament not the Pope
Henry brought a zeal to government. His emphasis on parliament turned it from an occasional king’s court into a central pillar of the English constitution.
Henry then used his parliaments to iron out some of the medieval ambiguities he saw around him. He had inherited the title Lord of Ireland when he came to the throne, a title given to his forebears by the papacy in the 12th century. In 1542 Henry passed an Act of Parliament which established himself as King of Ireland.
His sovereignty now sprang from parliament rather than pope.
Wales was excluded from parliament and ruled either direct by the crown or by a large number of feudal lordships, a remnant of the violent conquest of Wales in previous centuries.
Henry swept this aside with Acts of Parliament which incorporated Wales into England. Lordships were abolished, the land divided into counties, with royal officials appointed, and members of parliament sent to Westminster.
These legal and political reforms have endured to the present.
3. Medicinal improvements
Other innovations have proved just as enduring. In 1518 Henry turned his attention to the medical profession.
To that point apothecaries and physicians practised without any regulation. Quacks and scammers offered medical services to desperate members of the community who fell ill.
Henry changed this. By Royal Decree he established what would become the Royal College of Physicians, and followed that up with an Act of Parliament which remains in force today.
This body now granted licenses to those qualified to practice and has the ability to punish those who were not but did so anyway. They also introduced the first standards for malpractice. It was a first step on dragging medicine away from superstition and setting on the path to becoming a scientific pursuit.
4. Maritime developments
Henry’s insecurity brought other benefits. Fearing for the security of his realm, he launched an astonishing campaign to map the whole of the coastline of England – and where he mapped, he fortified.
It was Henry who conceived of England as a single land mass to be protected and turned it into a defensible island, by building forts along the south coast (many of which he designed), and by establishing a powerful royal navy.
Previous fleets had been transitory and tiny by comparison to the one Henry amassed. Henry established a standing navy with a bureaucracy, dockyards at Deptford, Woolwich and Portsmouth and dozens of vessels.
He established the ‘Council for Marine Causes’ which would become the admiralty, and he transformed his ships and the way they fought from unwieldy vessels carrying soldiers who would board an enemy and fight it out hand to hand, to sleek, fast ships armed with heavy cannon which would blast their enemy into submission.
For the first time the kingdom had a standing royal navy, consisting of a fleet of battleships.
Henry’s impact on English culture was just as profound. He patronised some of the best artists of his day and arts and architecture flourished during his reign.
It was under Henry, not Elizabeth, that the great art forms of sonnet and blank verse were created. When he issued the first official Complete Works of Chaucer, Henry invented a national poet, a repository of England and Englishness: a literary past that would run alongside the new history of England created for his Church of England.
In some ways, it was Henry who invented the very idea of what it means to be English.